Even though I live in a 9-person household, over the years baby Aria and I have become the only "omnivores". I don't know if her taste buds will change over time and she'll copy her father's vegetarian diet, but for now, Aria enjoys meat and seafood. Last evening, I prepared a typical Vietnamese meal for ourselves called "cá hồi kho nước dừa", which roughly translates to "braised salmon simmered in coconut water". As a cook and especially as a mom, I took such pleasure in watching her appreciate the meal I had prepared for her.
The fish is cooked in a caramel sauce called "nước màu" ("colored water"), which is a "savory" sauce made of caramel where the boiling point of sugar was reached to add a brown color and to impart a slightly bitter aroma. The sauce is balanced with spicy, fresh red Thai chili peppers, ginger, nước mắm (fish sauce), whole mint leaves and green onions. My favorite way to serve this "cá kho" dish is with steamed jasmine rice and blanched Vietnamese leafy greens. It's a healthy, nutritious and complete meal. Baby Aria loved it and I'm sure you will, too. If you'd like to start with a more inexpensive fish, you could prepare the same dish with catfish or mackerel.
Servings: 4 servings
4 salmon fish steaks
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup canola oil (or any neutral oil)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons nước mắm (fish sauce), to taste
2 fresh red Thai chiles
2 tablespoons green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1 dozen whole mint leaves
Prepping the fish steaks: Ask your fishmonger to clean and prep 4 salmon steaks. Make sure they still have the skin on. Rinse thoroughly under running water. Place them in a deep dish. Barely cover with water and add lime juice. Mix well and let stand for about 5 minutes.
Discard the water. Pat dry using paper towels. Sprinkle with red chili powder. Drizzle with a little oil. Marinate the fish for no more than 30 minutes.
Searing the fish:
Use a wok with its matching lid. Add 3 tablespoons of canola oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onions. Cook the finely chopped onion for about 8 minutes until soft and nicely golden. Leaving as much oil as possible in the pan, transfer to a platter. Set aside.
Pat the fish dry one more time. Using a brush, lightly coat the fish steaks with oil. In the same pan, add the minced garlic and cook until golden. Add the ginger and cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Place the fish steaks. Pan-sear for a minute; flip the fish and sear the other side for an additional minute. Transfer the fish to a platter. Set aside. Wipe out the wok.
Making (nước màu) caramel: Add the granulated sugar to the wok and continuously stir until it heats evenly and becomes an amber, dark-ish syrup. As soon as the color is reached, stop the cooking process with ½ cup warm water and the fish sauce, stirring constantly.
Braising the fish:
Add the salmon to the caramel. Add the fried onions, red chiles, green onions and mint. Add water, just enough to barely cover the fish. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer for about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. Keep stirring every now and then (delicately flipping the fish occasionally and adding more sugar juice as it evaporates). Be careful; it's very delicate and flaky. Season with salt.
Check the doneness of the fish (add another ½ cup of water and cook a bit longer if not fully cooked). The caramel-colored gravy should be thin. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook for an additional 10 minutes over low heat. Check doneness. Transfer to a serving platter.
Serve with jasmine rice and blanched greens.
You could prepare this recipe with the fish steaks of your choice. The texture might be slightly different and the cooking time might vary as well. As soon as the fish becomes opaque and shrinks up a bit in size, it's done.
All the ingredients listed above can be found in Asian stores.